by Dr. Loretta Malandro
Are you being duped by word manipulators? It’s easy to miss word combinations that are used to get you to agree with the speaker’s message, even when you don’t.
In the News: It only takes a single paragraph to see how word manipulation is used to control what you hear or read. The word manipulator’s goal is to increase your receptivity to his or her message. Let’s take an excerpt from Obama’s speech to the nation from the State Floor of the White House on September 10, 2014:
“As Commander-in-Chief, my highest priority is the security of the American people. Over the last several years, we have consistently taken the fight to terrorists who threaten our country. We took out Osama bin Laden and much of al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’ve targeted al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, and recently eliminated the top commander of its affiliate in Somalia. We’ve done so while bringing more than 140,000 American troops home from Iraq, and drawing down our forces in Afghanistan, where our combat mission will end later this year. Thanks to our military and counterterrorism professionals, America is safer.”
Let’s Break It Down: The rhetoric is smooth and our responses are automatic. Beware: You may be missing communication red flags that you are being manipulated. Watch out for:
- Communication Red Flag #1: Starting with an Emotional Appeal: When anxiety is high, people want to be reassured. This is often accomplished with an emotional appeal. For example: “As Commander-in-Chief, my highest priority is the security of the American people”. Think about it. This sounds good—of course we want to feel safe—but is there any commitment or action? So what if his highest priority is the safety of the American people? This empty emotional appeal can lure us into a false sense of safety.
- Communication Red Flag #2: Talking about the Past: Many speakers talk about the past in an attempt to create a positive context for the not-so-good-news you are about to hear. The most common approach is to list a series of successes. Take a look at these phrases: “consistently fighting terrorists,” “we took out Osama bin Laden,” “recently eliminated a [top commander],” “while bringing more than 140,000 American troops home”. The listing tactic is a ploy to get you to agree that there are many past successes and you can count on more in the future. Do you agree with the past successes? Or, are you getting annoyed or angry waiting for the solution to the real problem at hand?
- Communication Red Flag #3: Drawing Broad-Sweeping Conclusions based on Alleged Past Successes: Here’s where the word manipulation gets tricky. The speaker provides you with a list of past successes. You may even find yourself nodding your head as you agree. Then, without realizing it, you are presented with a conclusion and you automatically agree because it seems to follow logically. In the Obama example the conclusion is: “Thanks to our military and counterterrorism professionals, America is safer.” Do you agree? Is America safer?
- Communication Red Flag #4: Using Verifiable Facts to Get You to Agree with a Conclusion: Facts or information presented as factual may be a trap. The mind can automatically settle into the mindset of “these are the facts” and “you can’t argue with the facts”. When this happens, it’s easy for the speaker to get you to agree with just about anything. Take a look at some of the verifiable facts that Obama offers: “more than 140,000 troops,” “we took out Osama bin Laden,” and “we are drawing down our forces in Afghanistan”. Verifiable facts increase the tendency for people to buy into the message or conclusion. Do you fall into this trap?
Actions you can take to create positive reactions in people by avoiding word manipulation: You don’t have to be the President of the United States or a formal leader in an organization to gain the benefits of effective communication. These simple but profound guidelines will help you avoid common pitfalls that create negative reactions in others. A caveat: If you use the following tips to manipulate, they will backfire. People are highly attuned to “BS” and will not believe your message.
1) Kill empty Emotional Appeals and Take a Bold Stand.
Instead of saying, “my highest priority is the security of the American people” which is a non-actionable statement, Obama could have turned this into a bold leadership stand by saying, “My highest priority and commitment is to you, the American people. I will make sure that America is safe and that you feel secure.” Using the language of “I will” is strong and reassuring; it commits the speaker to action. The words, of course, are not enough. As a speaker, you will need to outline what you will do to fulfill your promise.
2) Stop Talking About What You Did in the Past.
If someone is upset with you or if you are dealing with a delicate situation, do not talk about the good things you did in the past. Not only do they not matter, they will increase the likelihood of negative reactions to what you have to say.
3) Do Talk About Your Commitment.
Don’t assume that people know what you are committed to. State your heart-felt commitment out loud such as: “I am committed to resolving this situation and taking immediate action to prevent it from occurring again.”
4) Let Your Listener’s Draw Their Own Conclusions.
In order to resolve a breakdown or handle a challenge, people need to understand what happened. Present the facts about what happened but do not draw your own conclusions. For example: “These are the facts and I want you to draw your own conclusion. What I need to do—and will do—is….”
You will get a much better response when your goal is to influence people, not control them as word manipulators attempt to do. Protect yourself from people who use words to lead you in the direction they want you to go. Ask: “Where am I being seduced by words and agreeing to something, even when I don’t agree?”
Loretta Malandro is the CEO of the Malandro Consulting Group (www.malandro.com) and the author of several landmark business communication books published by McGraw-Hill including: Fearless Leadership, Say It Right the First Time, and her new book which is being released November 2014, “Speak Up, Show Up, and Stand Out”.